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’08 Courtship of Martinez Begins

Just hours after Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) stepped down as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, the GOP presidential hopefuls were swarming, hoping to nab the prominent Hispanic Senator’s endorsement.

“There’s been a lot of requests,” Martinez acknowledged last week. “But I’m not doing anything about it at this point.”

Martinez’s stock has seemingly skyrocketed in the week since he abruptly left his position at the RNC, an assignment he assumed just 10 months ago and was expected to hold until at least February. But Martinez said he needed more time to focus on his home state, a political battleground where he potentially faces a tough re-election in 2010.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Martinez’s resignation came just days before the RNC’s executive committee recommended stripping convention delegates from Florida and four other states for pushing up the date of their presidential primaries to before Feb. 5.

Martinez said at least three of the top-tier GOP presidential hopefuls have recently sought his support, including his colleague in the chamber, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Romney and Giuliani approached Martinez during the recent Republican debate in Orlando, where Martinez served as an announcer.

All three are considered viable contenders for the nomination and would arguably benefit from the nod of a prominent Cuban-American Senator from the electoral-vote-rich state of Florida.

“Martinez is more of a get now than he was at the RNC,” one prominent Republican said speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Now he’s a Florida Republican Senator and his pick in the nominating process is far more important than being chair of the RNC.”

Martinez joked that while he “would be a catch” for one of the candidates, he’s not interested in getting involved in the race just yet. He may not endorse until after the party has clearly selected its nominee, he added, saying he wants to spend the coming weeks taking “time for myself and to enjoy the quiet.”

“I certainly will do everything I can to help, but at this point, I’m just sitting back,” Martinez said.

President Bush tapped Martinez to head the RNC shortly after the devastating 2006 elections that stripped the GOP of its Congressional majorities. Republicans were hoping Martinez could help them in their ongoing campaign to win over Hispanic voters, an effort that proved unsuccessful in the previous cycle.

But over the past year, Martinez faced difficulties at home and especially within a Republican Party with which he is sometimes at odds.

One of the most notable examples came earlier this year when Martinez riled many conservative Republicans as a leading backer of a bipartisan immigration reform package in the Senate. The controversial bill ultimately fell short, but Martinez still took on a political beating in Florida for his position.

That notwithstanding, Republicans still view him as a prime target for the presidential candidates, each of whom wants to capture minority support in a key battleground state.

“Martinez is being courted by all the presidential hopefuls for all the reasons Martinez was brought in as chairman,” said an aide with ties to one of the top-tier GOP candidates. “His geographic constituency, his demographic constituency and his ability to raise money.”

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